Web services - the hype versus the reality

Time for a healthy dose of scepticism...

Time for a healthy dose of scepticism...

Web services will mean a huge leap forward for IT companies and most users but no one ever said it'd be easy. Here, Suzi Kerridge outlines her ideal end user scenario - and then gets real...

He hadn't been long in the job but in an effort to impress his managers my beloved had generously invited them to sample my legendary cooking. He, his manager, his manager's manager and the visiting manager from Sweden. Oh yes, and their wives - all expected around my table at 8pm that night.

That left me with a mere six hours to whip something up. Now, normally I rise to a challenge but that's hard to do when stuck on the sofa with an ankle in a Tubigrip after a nasty fall during aerobics.

Was I able to drive to the shops? Didn't matter. I'd taken advantage of my accident to send the car to be MOT-ed. Timing, as Groucho Marx once said, is everything.

The only thing for it was to go online and get the local supermarket to come to my rescue. I bundled a stack of their finest pre-prepared foods into my virtual basket and hurried to the checkout. There I typed in a single password and the order was processed. No bank details were necessary as my single password accessed my online account and authorised the transaction.

A few moments later an email from a local wine dealer I use pinged into my inbox. "I hear you're having a dinner party," it said. "We have a special offer on our Bourdeauxs if you're interested." I logged in to the wine seller's site, inputted my password, ordered a case and logged off - safe in the knowledge the wine will arrive later and my account will be debited.

The same happened for the candles I wanted and the new table linen from the local haberdashery.

And of course they will all be informed that I am a woman in a hurry so it will all arrive ASAP.
Dinner for eight? Pah! Easy.

Unfortunately it'll be at least another 20 years before consumers are afforded this sort of integrated service. Martin Butler, managing director of research house Butler Group, is a realist. He said: "The idea of web services being as convenient to use as power or the telephone is ten years away. But the idea of very complex applications embedded into databases to work in a collaborative process is about 20 years away."

And Butler is not the only one to submit to this argument. Perhaps surprisingly Microsoft and Sun, the two biggest players in the web services market, also believe it will be a few years before today's hype is tomorrow's reality.

"It will be some time before web services are totally dynamic but we see it more in the ten year timeframe instead of 20 years," said Mark Greatorex, director of the .Net Developer Group at Microsoft.

There are lots of simple examples around of companies trying out XML - eXtensible Mark-up Language, at the heart of web services - to extend access to data. The government of Singapore uses web services standards XML, SOAP and UDDI for integration of its government portal with actual services.

For many, XML is the first step along the path to integrated web services, said Marty Robins, senior director of Sun One sales development. For example, the UK government is currently using XML to give a common interface to its UK Online services offered through digital television or via the internet. Meanwhile, US airline South West has used XML to link their its with Dollar Rent-a-Car so customers can book a plane ticket and a car simultaneously. It's an oft-cited .Net case study.

But for the large part web services are confined to internal networks or between trusted partners.

The stated long-term goal is to put these applications on the web but companies are reluctant to move all their business logic onto a public network, however private it can be made.

A recent Gartner Group advisory report warned much of the work in the market at the moment is experimentation, especially in regards to Microsoft's .Net strategy.

It said: "Gartner has long believed that Microsoft is experimenting and just beginning to understand how a web service world will work and how to profit from it."

It warns organisations considering a relationship with Microsoft in regards to .Net or the software giant's My Services web services implementation to expect "continued experimentation, uncertainty and change".

Gartner concludes that experiments will continue for the next three years, and understandably so as vendors seek to spin off profitable business units or reassess how things are going.

Another problem is the fragmentation of standards today, according to Butler, and it is unlikely SOAP, UDDI and WSDL will be used in their pure forms.

"We are already seeing vendors extend standards such as SOAP beyond the basic remit as defined by the World Wide Web Consortium," added Butler.

This problem has not been helped by the rejection of Sun's application to become a founding member of the WS-I - the industry working group that promotes the interoperability of web services.

Sun's rejection, said Gartner recently, threatens future cooperation in the development of industry standards. It says Sun could use its close relationship with the Liberty Alliance - of which it is a founding member - to become awkward and object to either IBM or Microsoft joining the standards group.

Gartner sees this sort of fragmentation as an indication that web services will remain usable only at low levels for infrastructure and predominantly by IT companies. What is being seen today in the web services space is very much the foundations for future services. It's what Butler terms "the mundane stuff that doesn't grab the headlines but makes it work".

It is for this reason that web services is still very much in its infancy - and why I spent the other afternoon hobbling up and down the high-street shopping like a woman possessed.

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